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Market Update – 18 Months In Review

2014 began with an intense implosion of overpriced tech stocks that destabilized players and set us up for nasty knock off effects. Months afterwards, energy names began to turn downward and started an at first slow descent; a black omen for anyone looking for a forward indicator.

Saudi Arabia decided to play the world’s worst move (effectively maiming OPEC), spiked the oil markets when they could least handle it, and sent oil into the abyss touching off a second massive sector implosion in oil and gas names. But not just oil & gas, as the market became terrified of economic stagnation led by fears out of Europe and Asia, and the entire energy sector followed oil down the hole.

We are now experiencing what I view as the third wave of the same phenomenon that began in early 2014, more than a year later, as the entire stock market collapses 10% in a short span of time, led by China’s markets and the intensely poor decision making of a command/control economy trying to have their cake and eat it too.

That being said, I haven’t yet seen any indication that the real economy is retracting.

Job growth seems present and in my own local markets where I have a good ear to the ground concerning hiring and pay policies, I am actually hearing talk of wage hikes. The last five years, our local job market at least was terrified of the HR monsters that were federal regulations (chiefly PPACA), not to mention we are still reeling from 2009 in some respects. But I think as we clear away from the implementation of these federal regulations, especially with rigid conservatives now holding fast against, we are going to start to see some wage growth. Employees are actually demanding it now, voting with their feet when they can.

This should do wonders for the economy.

With regards to oil specifically (which is chiefest of my concerns) the EIA is suggesting that the current imbalance between consumption and production of oil is 2 million barrels per day. This is the cause of our stockpiling and the foremost reason oil has sunk so far. Saudi Arabia’s move to curtail US production has been a failure and so far the long feared wave of insolvencies has held to a slow drip, even from the most precarious of businesses.

A 2 million barrel imbalance is not all that bad and I believe that, barring some sort of real demand destruction, we’ll just float along at these levels until the market becomes more comfortable with oversupply. I don’t think oversupply necessarily will force pricing lower as it would take a very specific set of circumstances which include not having a merger & acquisition brokerage occur. Yet we see M&A activity is very healthy in this current time period and I have to believe that if oil goes much lower you would see US markets consolidate aggressively.

Besides this, the global imbalance is equivalent to about one major oil producer globally. And in this current environment, we also should be aware that civil unrest is a powerful destabilizer of oil production (via civil war) with positive likelihood.

Sources of new supply are questionable. New well development at these oil prices are unprofitable and only large state sponsored development is probable. Yet, economic weakness is harming state budgets and may make it difficult to attain approval for unprofitable ventures. The largest foreign state controlled sources of oil are also some of the most sensitive to this oil price shock.

Altogether, I continue to believe that the most likely outcome in oil markets is unknowable yet still predictable production locations going offline from internal unrest. Venezuela is pegged as the most likely location for such an event, do to the extreme nature of their current state of affairs, and because their leadership is proven incapable of handling the situation. But Venezuela is hardly the only candidate; just the best.

Outside of that, the economic uncertainty that hit everyone’s radar earlier this summer is now coming back under control. Bond yields continue to subside across all major foreign issuers, and I would not be surprised if the EU crisis in particular remains hidden from view for another full two years.

Domestically, I expect monetary policy to remain accommodating, but would not be surprised if Yellen raises interest rates some token amount, to try and claim some victory for the Federal Reserve. I cannot expect how the market will react to his, but believe the raise will be mostly symbolic anyway, so any effects should be temporary in nature.

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Oil Markets Are Destroying Themselves

We’re still in the midst of watching the oil industry unravel in spectacular fashion. I do not feel comfortable even uttering the word “bottom”, not even in jest, for the fear the entire structure would unwind and usher in $10 oil for two decades.

We need more expensive oil. I know you do not want to hear that; why just a few weeks ago I saw a long dormant Hummer H3 roaming the tundra planes of southeast Michigan. A once formidable species, these vehicles could once be seen all across the North American continent.

Their reemergence was a startling sign. Gasoline has gotten cheap.

It is comforting to think of these lower input costs as an unchallenged blessing to America. It is more complicated than that, I am afraid.

High oil prices have been one of very few elements that has actually helped foster stability in third world countries. Watching the recent turmoil and wars, it is easy to forget just how unnaturally peaceful the most recent decades have been in the grand scheme of things. Oil money has been used to weave the social fabric in these places and if oil prices stay low for a sustained period, we are going to see much more egregious cases of foreign sovereign collapse.

Oil prices have also driven the US recovery. The shale revolution was named thusly for a reason; job growth in the US would not have been possible without the advances in shale oil. This is a major pillar of the US recovery and without it our economy is going to suffer. High input costs were a minor inconvenience that came with job growth.

And of course there is the euro. The euro may just be the cause of the oil collapse in and of itself. I cannot say for certain yet, but I am suspicious. The euro and dollar are now almost at parity and this has crippled US exporters. If our own markets are suddenly sloshing around with oil to spare, it is because we are suddenly priced out of foreign markets. This is a precarious barrier…how cheap would oil need to be in this country to enable exporters to compete against euro/dollar parity? The dollar is going to isolate our business and tank us if we let this continue.

We need to start taking steps to regain stability. Bernanke would have never let this happen. Yellen is pushing for normalization of policy and this is not a bad thing. But they are far too comfortable watching a currency move like this happen with our probably largest trade group. We need a weaker dollar and we need more expensive oil and we need it now.

Now, because oil is so cheap, struggling shale producers are clocking overtime to meet payments. This is the exact opposite of what the oil markets need to find a bottom – a glut of even more oil.

In addition to addressing currency and demand issues, we really need a JP Morgan figure to emerge and start brokering some M&A moves that stitch up the supply side. Oil markets are leaking supply uncontrollably and this is going to cause extensive damage if not treated like the dire risk that it is.

The weak hands need to be either bought out or flushed or secured with long term financing. If we can’t shut some of these wells off, we’re going to have irreparable damage on our hands.

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EURUSD Parity Is Nearly Here – A Quick Look Back

There was a time just a few years ago when it was quite fashionable to talk about the European Debt Crisis. Why, we would wake up in the morning, have a spot of tea, some toast and some eggs, then jabber on until noon of eurocrises and pending doom of “The Old World”.

Around that time, I made a prediction that the euro would trade to parity against the dollar. It wasn’t something I could really trade on, since the only available products were untrustworthy scams and the timeline was long and unpredictable.

Here’s the link to the last time I mentioned the call, back in 2012. I suspended it because the then idiot Tea Party freshmen decided to destroy the credibility of the US government and we were still in the middle of easing programs designed to destroy the US dollar.

But I warned then, the future would be full of sudden shocks where the EURUSD would be prone to collapse and near parity. Well, here we are, with the EURUSD rate just now hitting 1.07 today.

This is the key reason why our markets are so volatile right now; especially true for commodities. Oil doesn’t know up from down specifically. The balance of trade is being thrown off.

This ends with stability of currencies. We don’t need the old EURUSD range back per se. We just need the bleeding to stop so we can find a new equilibrium.

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The Big Question Then: How To Play EU QE?

The Swiss bank just announced that the ceiling they have been maintaining against the euro is to be dropped. That would make sense, since the euro is now trading below 1.17, down from almost 1.40 just earlier. In terms of the exchange rate, that had to be getting very expensive.

But the timing here should be viewed as a sign that the ECB is really about to start QE. This should be the stance because if they don’t, the impact would be minimal, but if they do you can’t be on the wrong side of the trade.

In terms of what this QE will look like…well, that is the question. What is the ECB going to buy? Not public debt, surely. How much more financing can these governments stomach with yields already negative in many countries. Even the worst countries, like Greece, are borrowing at rates that an average citizen would envy.

My guess here is two fold: (1) they buy up private financial assets similar to the mortgage program the Fed had in place, but that it will center on short term bonds, while also working with banks to create a long term financing window (EU companies and banks in particular have notoriously short term financing arrangements) and (2) they take the opportunity to absorb whatever mechanisms exactly they have been using, before now, to hide the massive debt loads that should have been coming due over the past three years.

If you forgot, Europe ended up pulling some master BS, using a combination of trade accounts to gobble up the garbage so that the markets wouldn’t have to see it default. I’m hazy on the exact specifics, but I would gamble that those imbalanced accounts are still outstanding; and my guess is they’re about to get totally monetized.

So the big question now is, where do you park money? I think that it would be very stupid to try and be short right now with central banks making big noise and seemingly readying the cannons.

If this is like past central bank action, then any longs will do – equity, commodities, debt, whatever you like. Oil could get a huge boost since it’s been so ravaged. ECB action will give the Fed room to play, especially if deflation keeps up. Yellen is no Bernanke…yet, but she also hasn’t been tried either. If the Fed coordinates, all boats get lifted.

But the safest low key play is probably just to hug U.S. dollars until things are a little more clear.

I am ~78% cash, with positions in CCJ, BAS and VOC, down roughly 3% in the first two weeks of the year.

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Going Higher

I don’t know if this is just a bounce or a new leg to the rally. But we’re going up, folks.

The EURUSD is back near 1.275, after bleeding below 1.27 earlier. The collapse of the euro has been the driving force of the move in oil and the correction in the markets. That’s it; the big mystery. The oil glut, the game of “guess demand whack-o-mole”, the sudden fear – nothing next to the euro.

The other excuses being provided are just not that relevant. The data is fine. Demand is shifting around and notoriously sluggish but altogether fine also. Jobs creation is slow, but fine. There’s no real data even reflecting the fears of observers on display yet.

But the euro is an undertow and its move from above 1.4 to below 1.27 did damage. It strengthened the dollar considerably and sent trade out of balance.

With the euro firming up a bit, it’s going to help take some of the edge off. For as long as the EURUSD is lifting I am constructive on stocks and commodities.

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Monetary Policy Remains Overwhelmingly Accommodative (And Outlook)

The fed decision to test the waters with a taper while I was away did surprise me, somewhat. Yet it did not phase me much and so I elected to remain on vacation, silent on the issue.

I would state now in hindsight that a $5B per month taper (with as much as another $5-10B in the works) would still put the Federal Reserve on path to add another ~$800B to its balance sheet in 2014. This remains colossal and would have the Fed assets outstanding at just under $5 Trillion by 2015.

They may very well have tapered by $5B/month just because they were running out of things to buy…(laughter)

If I were to state things that concern me as potential impediments to the US economy and growth, they would list (1) consumer slowdown from budget impacts (pension, healthcare costs, rents/mortgage, increased retirement contributions, etc), (2) foreign existential shocks (EU breakup, Asian crisis, similar collapse that disrupts foreign trade) – where exactly did the EU government debt go and why is it now suddenly not an issue? Who is buying it (ECB, Fed, banking scheme, inter-government trade imbalances, etc)? And what stops non-payment concerns from popping up again in the future? and (3) the election of a Republican majority

But banking solvency just isn’t on that list right now. Neither is inflation, really, although long term prospects of an uncontrollable outbreak of inflation remains a viable possibility. With credit expansion in this country limited to growth of government balance sheets, deflationary pressure is set to commence…until it doesn’t. In the meantime, another ~$1 Trillion of free money to those closest to the trough will keep a major disruption of financial assets here at home as a low probability outcome. Of course, this bodes ill for the “wealth equality” lot, but they’re too dumb to call the system out on that, so we maintain the course.

Concerns aside, I am optimistic. Recessions don’t last forever, and my concerns are outweighed by hope in outlook. I am very long (no margin) and prepared to reap the rewards of economic growth. It’s been almost six years; the system has been on a hyperactive outlook for problems which greatly reduces the likelihood that a real “Black Swan” manages to crop up. It could still happen of course, but with hundreds of thousands of financial professionals calling bubbles as quickly as problems crop up, and a full time central banking staff armed with an unlimited supply of money attacking them at first sight, how exactly is a crisis supposed to materialize from all of this?

The only room for crisis in the US is rampant commodity/asset appreciation, which remains benign. That or an elsewise major shock to the consumer. Financial assets and liquidity issues are covered.

Now, that being said, historically we haven’t had a period longer than 10 years without a recession since at least 1789 (and probably not since long before that either – I just lack records to verify a more robust claim). I’d say the expectation of a correction since the Great Depression is 5-10 years with occasional 1-3 year shocks intermittently. We’re past the small shocks phase, which would put the expectation at right about where we’re at.

These times are unprecedented and the support the Fed is willing to lend the markets (unlike any time in recorded history) makes me think we blow through the averages. I want to say this ship will have the wind to sail to years seven, eight or nine, uninterrupted. We may even match the record holder of 10 or above.

However, it would be foolhardy to doubt another recession will most likely crop up before 2020. The ever growing levels of margin debt to buy equities may well be the first sign of the beginning of the final run before that. Of course it could be nothing.

My belief then is that a long commitment remains the way to go. I have been positively surprised by recent developments that have overridden prior comments on wanting to have a larger cash position by about this time (end of 2013) that I made late last year. However, as gains are taken, a portion should begun to be set aside, starting sometime mid 2014 to early 2015. This should create a reserve build-up of steadily marching intervals (10-20%, with a 1-2% increase every month topping out at around 40-50% of ones account value) sometime around late 2015 to early 2016.

At such time, a second hard look should be had. Earlier and exceptional strength should trigger a reassessment of these statements. Casual to quality growth does not necessarily change them. A major weakness (such as a shock of a GOP majority and fear of monetary policy interference) of course may necessitate a sudden course change.

My most hated places to invest are land/real estate (excluding multifamily or renting derived), oil companies (excluding natural gas predominated), and retail (excluding facilitation to the ultra-rich).

My favorite places center around natural gas production expansion, uranium, coal, multifamily REITs, and I remain interested in holding physical precious metals in a full position in the event an inflation shock from significant expansion in credit hits the economy.

I’m indifferent to the insurance market – especially health insurance. It could swing either way; they crawled into bed with the devil so it’s all political at this point. On the one hand, the entire market is shifting in wild and unpredictable ways. On the other, the feds are rigging the game in the insurance companies favor. Just stay away.

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